Monday, 12 October 2009

Divided by a Common Language - Charlie Butler


One of the most exciting things to happen to me as a writer, apart from getting published in the first place, was hearing that my first book had been sold for publication in another country. In fact, The Darkling sold in two, which while hardly spectacular was still very pleasing. In Danish it appeared as Skyggen Masker (which means, I think, “Shadow Masks”). Being a monoglot I can’t comment on how well the translation was done, although a Danish friend of mine claims to have enjoyed the result. Either way, I was not involved in the process at all, and that seems to be fairly typical for translations into foreign languages.
On the other hand, I was involved in translating The Darkling into American English for the US edition – very much so. I was quite surprised how many changes were requested or required by my American publisher. Most of these were minor. Changing “paper round” to “paper route”, for example, caused me few qualms, and there were scores of “translations” into American at that level of inconsequence. But there were trickier issues, too. One central scene was set at a Bonfire Night firework display. Could I change the setting to something more familiar to US children, they asked? Er, not really. Or at least add a few lines to explain Guy Fawkes to a US readership? Oh, okay, then. I added a few lines.
And what about money? Would it be all right to change “50p” to “a dollar”? No, it wouldn’t! But why not, I asked myself? Admittedly, it would be odd for my English heroine to be using American currency, but not that much odder than having her tell her story in American English, surely? I’m not certain I ever sorted this out satisfactorily in my own mind. My rule of thumb, in so far as I had one, was to keep to a minimum those occasions when readers would be forced to notice my word choice, rather than the story that the words were there to tell. I wasn’t very happy about that, though: after all, as a writer I rather like readers to notice my word choices – and to admire them!
I recalled this experience the other day, after hearing from a colleague about the long-running battle in Translation Studies (yes, it is an academic subject) between “domesticators” and “foreignizers”. In brief, domesticating translators are happy to change texts to make them familiar and easily comprehensible to their audience, leaving readers with as little work to do as possible. Publishers of children’s books are domesticators by instinct – as too are Hollywood producers, with their long record of taking books set in Britain and relocating them to California, and the like. Foreignizing translators, by contrast, want their readers to be aware of the alien nature of what they’re reading, and to appreciate it. Part of the pleasure of reading a book from another culture lies precisely in learning about that culture and the ways in which it differs from one’s own, they argue. Publishers, unsurprisingly, tend to consider this a risky commercial strategy, unless the foreignness takes the form of a cliché that is itself familiar. Harry Potter’s Britishness was acceptable, and could even be turned into a selling point, because it played into a set of ideas about Britain that were already current in American popular culture. (On the other hand, some early readers of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone were bemused to read that Harry was wearing a jumper – which in US-ese is a sleeveless dress. In later editions I believe this was changed to “sweater”.)
Publishers will perhaps claim that their domesticating approach makes commercial sense, and that readers who relish the alien will always be in a small minority. I’d love to counter that they’re wrong, that they’ve sadly underestimated the curiosity and open-mindedness of US children – but since I have no evidence other than a general-belief-cum-pious-hope that people will be open-minded if their minds haven’t already been glued shut, I can’t say it with absolute conviction.
What I do feel I can grump about unreservedly are those clumsy translations that seem stuck in mid-Atlantic – in which children talk about baseball but deal in pounds and pence, or take a Greyhound bus to Scotland. Such books (no names, no pack-drill) are not authentically foreign, since they depict a place that has never existed, but they’re no more comfortingly domestic than Frankenstein’s monster.
Of course, all this happens in the reverse direction, too – with American books ineptly rendered for the British market. But my impression is that British publishers expect children here to be fairly familiar with American life anyway. And with good reason: on UK television, for example, there are far more television dramas set in American high schools than in British secondary schools. But that’s a rant for another day.

12 comments:

Nick Green said...

You were offered the chance to change 50p to a dollar? I'd have seized that exchange rate with both hands.

Charlie Butler said...

This was back in the days when 50p really was worth a dollar...

AnneR said...

What happened to Bonfire night in Danish?

Charlie Butler said...

I've no idea! Maybe the Danes are more able to cope with cultural alterity...

Leslie Wilson said...

I don't believe in domestication too much, but I haven't yet got a US publisher. But changing currencies surely just gives kids the impression that everywhere deals in dollars, a bad idea surely? I am similarly outraged by kids books that were written pre-decimalisation where the characters buy stuff in decimal currency. What's going on here? Are they so thick they can't understand that once upon a time things were different? Would we write about kids in the 19th century buying things in p? That was a time, mind, when a penny was really worth something...
On the other hand, I can see it's a problem if the kids don't understand that jumper is something different in England, but why not have a glossary?
It makes me remember the woman I met in 1983 on a Hawaiian beach. We were on our way home from Hong Kong to Britain via the States, and when she heard we were visiting California and Boston, she said: 'You'll have to do something about your accent, American people don't like people who talk English differently.' I did wonder what happened to those stories of 'I love your accent', and in the event, nobody was angry with us because we weren't trying to talk like Americans - they might have been annoyed if we had!! But it did exemplify a particular narrow and disgusting insularity, the kind of attitudes that lead to foreigners or people of different ethnicity being attacked and beaten up, or worse.. and I think kids' horizons should be widened..

Wendy said...

I'm from the US, and read quite a lot of books that took place in England when I was a kid--mostly older books or historical fiction. There were things I was puzzled about, but as with other kinds of historical fiction, I used context to figure them out (often incorrectly) or just wondered. When I visited my English cousins while I was in college, and they were helping me sort out the money, I asked naively how many pence made a shilling and how many shillings in a pound, and they laughed and laughed. My reading made me think England still used that system, obviously. (Noel Streatfeild's characters always talk about money a great deal.)

If there's no compelling reason for a book to be identifiably set in England, sure, domesticate and it might reach a wider audience. But you couldn't do that to, say, The Dark is Rising.

For many years I worked at summer camp with many young women who came from overseas for a summer job. The young British women would occasionally get frustrated because the kids would look at them dumbly when they were told to "get into your bathing costume" or "wash the cutlery". I can see how those words seem intuitive, and as an adult I can generally get the gist of any British English, but the kids just didn't make those connections.

Charlie Butler said...

Leslie: I am similarly outraged by kids books that were written pre-decimalisation where the characters buy stuff in decimal currency. What's going on here? Are they so thick they can't understand that once upon a time things were different?

Yes, this kind of thing grates on me too. Some of the updated Famous Fives are particularly tin-eared, given that their whole ethos is so firmly pre-1960. But it's not their being thick that bugs me so much as their evident belief that children have no curiosity about anyone who isn't exactly like themselves.

Wendy: But you couldn't do that to, say, The Dark is Rising.

They did try, I understand, but Susan Cooper said no! Instead they did the next best (or worst) thing, and turned the Stantons into Americans living in England.

Danielle said...

I went out of my way to purchase Harry Potter from UK sellers because I despise the so-called "Americanizing" of the pieces.

Katherine Langrish said...

When I was living in the States I was paying a fine on an overdue library book and apologised to the librarian for being slow to sort through my change. I said, "I'm sorry, I haven't figured out which are the nickels and which are the dimes, yet,' and she replied, "Oh, is the money different in England?"

But, I must add that Americans are charming!

Nick Green said...

Utter idiocy is what I call it. A pointless practice based on a fundamental lack of understanding.

I mean, a moment's thought! What about fantasy? Do we want orcs to be changed to 'nasty people', dragons to be changed to tanks and planes, or wizards to be changed to electricians? Of course not. We intuitively understand what fantastical creations are, and what they do, from the context in which they appear.

Anyone with the intelligence to read a book is intelligent enough to work out, for example, that 'Father Christmas' is Santa Claus, and that a pound is a unit of currency.

steeleweed said...

I would have told the publisher to go suck eggs.
If the action takes place in the UK, with British characters, I (as an American reader) would find it quite odd not to have a British flavor, in both dialog and terminology.
God forbid a reader might actually learn something by reading it, eh?

Charlie Butler said...

As an example of the same kind of thing going the other way, I've just been reading one of Lois Lowry's Anastasia books to my daughter, and kept stumbling over references to their living in a 'flat', and Anastasia calling her mother 'Mum'. I mentioned this to my daughter (aged 11), who said that she'd been bothered by it too. So I don't really know whom the adaptors imagine they're helping here!